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Matriarch’s winding road to Judaism

Bella Leidental sits under a poster that reads, 'Learn the Torah,' in the offices of Tsafon, a Jewish community center in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia. (Matt Siegel)

Bella Leidental sits under a poster that reads, ‘Learn the Torah,’ in the offices of Tsafon, a Jewish community center in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia. (Matt Siegel)

PETROPAVLOVSK-KAMCHATSKY, Russia (JTA) – Bella Leidental remembers exactly where she was the day she decided to walk away from Judaism.Her
co-workers on a Moscow ambulance crew, apparently remembering that she was
Jewish, had sought to reassure her after a session of anti-Semitic
jokes. “Don’t be insulted, you’re not really a Jew,” they told her that day in 1953. “You’re an exception. We don’t consider you a Jew.”With that, the young woman started on a winding journey to the farthest
reaches of the Russian frontier, and eventually back to a life she
thought was gone forever. “I realized how awful it was to be a Jew in the USSR,” said Leidental, now 73 and a silver-haired grandmother.”I
promised myself that there wouldn’t be a single Jew in my family,” she
said of the episode, without even a whisper of regret. “So I married a
Russian.” Today it’s difficult to imagine
the boisterous Leidental, a fixture in Kamchatka’s tiny Jewish
community, where people refer to her as “the mother of the Jews,” being
anything but a proud matriarch. Whether
interrupting the community’s religious leader during a recent
Passover seder, cracking bawdy jokes or doting over the constellation
of children forever orbiting her like so many satellites, Leidental’s
dominant but loving presence embodies the image of a Jewish
grandmother. Her strength, born of a lifetime that she describes as “a mixture of death and comedy,” came at a heavy price. Born
in Chernigov, Ukraine, in 1934 during the height of the
Soviet-manufactured famine that killed as many as 4.8 million
people, Leidental’s life was a lesson in hardship from the start.”I was an unwanted child, and it was very difficult for my parents,” she said. “I knew that I was unwanted.”When
many of the family’s acquaintances fled Russia to settle in what was
then British-ruled Palestine, Leidental’s father, the founder of a
local Jewish theater and a devout communist, insisted that the family
stay behind.”He loved Russia so much,” she said of her father. “I inherited that from him.”His
decision would prove disastrous. Chernigov, 90 miles northeast of Kiev,
was devastated during the Nazi invasion. Leidental, her parents and an
older sister were evacuated by rail and spent the war bouncing around
the USSR, from urban Stalingrad to the salt mines of Solovetsk.While she remembers little anti-Semitism at the beginning of the war, by the end she sensed a change.”People started blaming the Jews for what had happened,” she said.Conditions
deteriorated for Soviet Jews and Leidental’s family was stuck for five
years in a tiny apartment, which her father attributed to
official anti-Semitism.Struck by the poverty around her and
increasingly wary of being known as a Jew, Leidental decided at
age 16 to study medicine in Moscow. She couldn’t make the grade,
however, and opted to become a nurse. Leidental survived on
the free bread and salt set out on the tables in the local university
cafeteria. She spent many nights in metro or railway stations to avoid
returning to the apartment she shared with 14 people – among them drug addicts and criminals, Leidental said.Despite the troubles, she recalls the period with mixed emotions.”They were the best years of my life,” she said, “but also the worst.”Out
of fear and frustration, Leidental began telling people that her Jewish
features, which she had grown to despise, were actually Armenian. After graduation Leidental was posted to a military garrison in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, in line with the Soviet practice of assigning new graduates to jobs in undesirable locations in return for having funded their higher education. After resisting the posting for a year, Leidental ultimately relented, thinking Khabarovsk
was about as far as she could get from her Jewish past.She hoped to find and marry a Russian man who would free her from history. There was a slight problem, however.”My
blond-haired, blue-eyed Russian husband was more Jewish than me,” said
Leidental, laughing nostalgically at the memory of her husband, who
died in 1972.A sailor in the Red Fleet, he was a great admirer
of the Jewish people, and his obstinate refusal to allow Leidental to
denigrate her heritage slowly began to chip away at her. When she said she wanted a nose job, her husband said he wouldn’t let her back in
the house if she got one. He read heavily about Jewish culture and
history, and passed on the information to Leidental with pride.”He
loved me so dearly that I stopped considering myself ugly,” she said.
“But at the same time, if people would ask me if I was Armenian, I
would say yes.” Over the next 40 years, that too would fade.
After moving to Kamchatka in 1958, Leidental worked on the first modern
ambulance crew in the rugged and isolated Far Eastern region, a job that
accidentally brought her back to the Jewish community.Shortly
after the fall of the Soviet Union, Leidental’s crew received a call
that would change her life. Unsure of the address, she stopped to ask for directions. “The woman
told me, ‘You don’t want the fifth floor, that’s where the Jewish
community center is,’ ” Leidental recalls. “I couldn’t believe it. I
didn’t know there was any Jewish community here.”After several
days of indecision, Leidental decided to visit the center,
which was the regional office of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The
Jewish Agency referred her to Tsafon, Petropavlovsk’s small but vital
JCC, and she seems never to have left.Leidental wryly describes
her role in the community as akin to the traditional Russian “marriage general,” an honored guest invited to weddings to add an
element of class. Indeed, there seems to be no community event to which
she’s not invited, nor that she’d refuse.For the
Jewish girl from Ukraine, the one who
attributes her recovery from cancer two years ago to a prayer for
health on Purim and speaks again with fondness of the town of her
youth, the journey is not yet complete. But the tone has changed.”My
attitude changed,” Leidental said, sitting on a weathered sofa in the
Tsafon offices. “I’m very proud. Now when I open the door to a flat,
the first thing I say is, ‘I’m a Jew!’ “

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